To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Jeffrey Goldberg Is The Israel Debate's 'Official Therapist' --- And Its 'Jekyll And Hyde.' But He Won't Tell Whether He's Renounced His Israeli Citizenship

The Atlantic writer and current Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg has been called the “official therapist” of the US-Israel “special relationship." He also functions as a referee or a cop in the debate about that relationship, enforcing acceptable standards in a discourse fraught with semantic landmines and political ill will. Temperamentally, the two Goldbergs couldn’t be more different. It’s almost like he’s journalistically bi-polar---the Israel debate’s Jekyll and Hyde.

Therapist Goldberg is the Good Jeffrey. As almost everyone who has known or met him will attest, he’s witty, genial and funny---a mensch. This is the side of him we see on Charlie Rose, on the Sunday morning newsmaker shows and on CNN. It’s also the side we see in most of Bloomberg columns and, before he joined Bloomberg, in most of his magazine work for the Atlantic and the New Yorker. He’s plugged in and well informed, on a first name basis with sources that are often unavailable to others in the insular, incestuous world of Israeli politics ---and often privy to developments in the Mid-east that other journalists only learn about through him. The time he spent in Israel after dropping out of college in the 1980’s has served him well, providing a platform for a journalistic career that has focused on Middle Eastern politics—Israel and the Islamic world both---for the last 20 years.

Goldberg’s analysis of the Iranian nuclear negotiations has been marked by a command of technical and diplomatic detail, even if he has favored the cynical view held by Israel, which sees the Iran nuclear negotiations less in terms of the opportunities it offers for avoiding war than in terms of the room it offers Iran to manipulate world opinion. Goldberg’s Washington access has been impressive too: His Bloomberg interview with Obama two weeks ago made global news when Obama told him that it was basically time for Benjamin Netanyahu to get with the John Kerry peace program or risk Israel’s international isolation.

Goldberg the debate “cop” however is the Bad Jeffrey. Underneath the network prominence and national headlines, he’s a bully and a smear artist with a very long history of making gratuitous accusations of anti Semitism and using dishonest straw-man argumentation to distort the views of those who challenge his ideas about Israel in a way that can only be characterized as demagogic. He flashed this side of himself, regularly and egregiously, when he was blogging for the Atlantic, which he has stopped doing, apparently finding blogging too “glandular.” But the toxicity still leaches into his Bloomberg columns and into his Twitter feed, as well as into the book reviews he on the side.  Goldberg the cop personifies the nasty edge that characterizes the broader American debate on Israel, as well as the drive to demonize and expel those who challenge the sacred cows and taboos that make the debate so dysfunctional or make criticism of Israel that its American supporters find offensive or threatening.  

Goldberg’s Zionism is moderate compared to some in the pro Israel journalistic community. The drive for “Greater Israel” he has written, will result in a “lesser Israel” which can’t stay democratic and Jewish unless it ends the its military occupation of the West Bank and embraces, once and for all, a two-state solution. He is also against the continued building of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, and has reported on the Israeli settler movement in ways that vividly highlights its Biblical bloody-mindedness.

But Goldberg clearly believes that extremism in the pursuit of the sides of Zionism he does embrace is not a vice. In making his journalistic arrests, he routinely uses unnecessary force. He throws around unjust accusations of anti Semitism fairly freely, plays the Nazi card with little sense of historical proportion and invokes the Holocaust in ways that are both alarmist and exploitative. Although he often invokes the high purpose Israel might represent (“Light onto the nations”) he often takes a very low road in defending it, frequently engaging in ad hominem attacks, name- calling and mud slinging. As a mostly flattering profile in the Washingtonian put it a year ago, “Goldberg’s hotheaded attempts to referee the infighting over Israel make him perhaps the most polarizing journalist in town. Who died and made him Moses?”

The Washingtonian profile also gave a sense of why Goldberg is allowed to get away with what other journalists on other subjects would not, hinting at double standards that shoot through the Israel debate as a whole, including the wealthy owners and influential editors Goldberg has worked for. While I don’t like affirming armchair psychoanalysis and ethnic generalizations delivered in blind quotes, there might be something to what an “anonymous Jewish journalist,” fearful of Goldberg’s ire, told Washingtonian writer Paul Starobin.  

“At some level,” this unnamed journo said, “American Jews want that level of aggression in a spokesman” because of their history of oppression. And Goldberg “gets pleasure out of torturing people.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the intensity of Goldberg’s ethnic anger and the intensity of his ideological commitment (to Zionism) being indulged in any journalistic discourse other than the one on Israel. As they say, “Only in America.”    


One thing that has especially unhinged Bad Jeffrey is the debate about the role of the Israel lobby in skewing American policy in the Middle East, and the undue influence its money and political power has in the US Congress. Here, the focus of Goldberg’s wrath, scorn, intemperate invective and smears has been Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the two academics who authored The Israel Lobby, first as an academic paper in the London Review of Books in 2006 and the year after as a best-selling book published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. According to the Washingtonian, when New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier gave the book to Goldberg to review, he also gave him marching orders to “demolish it.” This  Wieseltier said Goldberg did, though others, like Ezra Klein, saw Goldberg’s attack as an example of “fearful tribalism” that “shocked” him. 

Grouping them in the same “odious” anti Semitic company as Pat Buchanan, Charles Lindbergh, David Duke and Mel Gibson, Goldberg insisted that Mearsheimer and Walt’s analysis of the lobby’s hold on Congress was “malignant and dishonest” and represented “the most sustained attack, the most mainstream attack, against the political enfranchisement of American Jews since the era of Father Coughlin.” Going a step further, Goldberg took one of the book’s minor points and presented it as if it was at the top of the authors’ agenda, claiming that the Israel Lobby argued that American support for Israel was responsible for 911. In fact the two did cite America’s unconditional support for Israel as a background factor in the broader international jihadi movement. But it was hardly discussed as a determining factor, and it was given rather limited attention in a book that was 500 pages long. Goldberg closed the review with a sarcastic reference to Mearsheimer’s obviously Teutonic name having a “Jewish ring,” juvenilely hinting at the author’s darker Hitlerian affinities.

In the years since Goldberg has never passed up an opportunity to besmirch these authors even in contexts where he has to contort himself—and their text--- to do so. At one point, Goldberg actually republished the entirety of his TNR review on his Atlantic blog in a post headlined “Who is Stephen Walt—the whole thing, not just a link to it--- which has to set a new standard both for self-regard and for obsession. At another, Goldberg brought the word “Neolindberghian into existence, likening Walt to the infamously anti Semitic aviator. In a September 2013 column on Obama’s possible intervention in Syria Goldberg referred to a narrative “advanced by such conspiracy theorists as Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer and Mel Gibson that Israel is behind all of America’s wars.” A few weeks later in his TBR review of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s latest book on anti Semitism, The Devil that Never Dies, Goldberg again lumped the two scholars in with Mel Gibson, as well as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an elderly Sunni televangelist on Al Jazeera in Qatar who is, Goldberg says, a flaming Arab anti Semite. Goldberg makes the clear implication that Mearsheimer and Walt, like al Qaradawi, believe that “Jews have started all wars.”  It’s as if Goldberg is Ahab, and The Israel Lobby is his white whale.

The nasty streak that candor about the Israel lobby’s corrupting role in American politics brings out in Goldberg was again evident just after John Kerry’s State Department secured a deal with Iran to pursue negotiations and inspections on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. The negotiations deal in Geneva was struck despite intense objections from AIPAC and others in the pro Israel community in the US, as well as alarmist rhetoric Benjamin Netanyahu who was being quoted in the international press making predictions of Iranian duplicity and the possibilities of another Holocaust. This two-pronged campaign against the deal represented an inconvenient confirmation of one of the The Israel Lobby’s more controversial arguments: that American and Israeli national interests are not identical and that sometimes the lobby pursues objectives that are in conflict with broader American national interests.  As Thomas Friedman scowled:

Never have I seen Israel and America’s core Arab allies working more in concert to stymie a major foreign policy initiative of a sitting U.S. president, and never have I seen more lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — more willing to take Israel’s side against their own president’s. I’m certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.

Making a very succinct analysis of the lobby’s role in the failed campaign against the initiative, former Carter Administration national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, applauded the deal’s success. “Obama/Kerry = best policy team since Bush I/Jim Baker,” Zbig tweeted “Congress is finally becoming embarrassed by Netanyahu’s efforts to dictate US policy.” Seeing red, Goldberg paraphrasing Zbig in the most tortured way, tweeted in reply:  “Jews run America, suggests ex-national security adviser,” Goldberg wrote.

The tweet had some “history” behind it. Two months before, Goldberg had used his Bloomberg column to abuse Brzezinski for his criticism of Israeli settlement policy. According to Goldberg, Zbig was scapegoating Israel “for problems it didn’t cause, in the same way that it has historically been quite dangerous to blame the Jewish people for problems they didn’t cause. Brzezinski’s native Poland provides lessons in this regard.” The reference to Poland, and to Zbig’s “profound religious faith” in the “”realist school” of foreign policy was code for longstanding antagonism focused on Zbig from pro Israel journalists like the New Republic’s Marty Peretz who have used Zbig’s Polish Catholic background to discredit him as an anti Semite just because he isn’t as devout as they are toward the Jewish state.

Goldberg’s toxic tweet was denounced by the communications director of the liberal pro Israel organization J Street, who noted that Brzezinski didn’t “say or even imply that” and that Goldberg’s “Willingness to accuse everyone of anti Semitism makes it impossible to respect (him)” J Street’s chairman Jeremy Ben Ami scolded Goldberg too: “Can’t agree with your read of @zbig tweet. Doesn’t say “Jews run America.” You’re putting words in his mouth.” Ben Ali added that there was “No question Bibi has tried/is trying to influence US policy by pushing Congress when he disagrees with White House. “

What makes Goldberg’s ongoing campaign against critics of the Israel lobby all the more dishonest is his own evolving view of the lobby, which has crept quite close to the positions advanced by Mearsheimer and Walt.  Goldberg has even expressed these positions using language that he would surely denounce as “anti Semitic tropes” if someone else employed it.

In a New York Times op-ed from May, 2008, headlined “Israel’s American Problem,” Goldberg made the case for a “a radical rethinking of what it means to be pro Israel,” Grandees” in the Jewish American leadership, “who live in Chicago and New York and behind the gates of Boca Raton country clubs,” were blocking this rethinking, and it was affecting the 2008 presidential campaign for the worse. The two leading presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, were “smart, analytical men who understand the manifold threats Israel faces 60 years after its founding,” Goldberg wrote. “They should be able to talk, in blunt terms, about the full range of dangers faced by Israel, including the danger Israel has brought upon itself” through settlement policies in the West Bank, but “the leadership of the organized American Jewish” wasn’t allowing it.  Goldberg seemed to have sensed he was getting very close to echoing what Mearsheimer and Walt had said and even mentioned them in a disclaimer that the Israel Lobby had it wrong, in claiming support for Israel hurts America. “It doesn’t,” Goldberg declared. “But unthinking American support does hurt Israel.” In fact, the two authors did argue that American blanket support does harm Israel.  

In a funny post noting what he called Goldberg’s Variation, Phil Weiss of Mondoweiss noted the conceptual and linguistic similarities between what Goldberg was saying now and what Mearsheimer and Walt had originally written. Weiss pictured  Goldberg “licking his thumb as he turned down the page of his inspirational text” and said that even the two authors had not gone as afar as to knock “the rich guys” in Boca or to characterize them as being part of the "octopus" of American Jewry. Indeed as Goldberg has come to echo the same points in the Israel Lobby he continues to scorn, he reminds me of someone throwing someone else over the side of a ship, and picking his pocket as he does so. This may not be at all intellectually consistent. But it is consistent with the lack of self-awareness that, along with the Zionist ideological ardor, is trademark Goldberg.

Another subject that gets Goldberg going are those who his dual Israeli-American citizenship and his past service in the Israeli Defense Force as a way of implying “dual loyalty.” This, say Goldberg’s critics, especially those on the left, makes his journalism overly sympathetic to the Israeli view, particularly on the Iraq war and now the showdown with Iran. His Atlantic cover story in 2009 about Israel’s plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, which was read as overly hawkish, was a lightning rod. Some said he had made the Atlantic into a neocon “propaganda tool” that might get the US embroiled in another Middle East war.

At Salon, Glenn Greenwald remarked on Goldberg’s “intense, Israel-devoted agenda” and said it was both “strange and revealing” that

the “objective journalist” to whom America’s political elites most faithfully turn for “reporting” on the Middle East is someone whose loyalty to Israel is so overarching that he actually went and joined the IDF (just try to imagine an American journalist reporting on this conflict for a large media outlet who previously joined the Iranian military or the military of any predominantly Muslim country).  
On the Times op-ed page, the Atlantic’s Robert Wright wrote that Goldberg
has previously been accused of pushing a pro-war agenda via ostensibly reportorial journalism. His 2002 New Yorker piece claiming to have found evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda is remembered on the left as a monument to consequential wrongness. And suspicions of Goldberg's motivations only grow when he writes about Israel. He served in the Israeli army, and he has more than once been accused of channeling Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu."

In the early 1980s, a much younger Goldberg had dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania and moved to Israel. As a teenager he had become obsessed with anti Semitism and Jewish impotence in the face of it.

He had been harassed by schoolyard bullies in hometown of Malverne, Long Island, a “tribally Catholic, deeply American town. “I knew well that Jews were disliked—I knew this in an uncomfortably personal way,” he wrote in a 2006 memoir Prisoners. “I didn’t like the dog’s life of the Diaspora. We were a whipped and boneless people.”

Going to Israel for his bar mitzvah was transformative, prompting him to become “deeply enamored of Israel,” he told an interviewer:

Seeing Israeli soldiers, Jewish soldiers more to the point, Jewish tanks, Jewish machine guns, was quite exciting to a powerless 13-year-old boy suffering at the hands of Irish pogromists, juvenile pogromists.

Returning home, he “felt a bit like David Ben Gurion, set adrift on Long Island” and thought that Israel “might have been meant to be my true home.”

After immigrating to Israel, he enlisted in the IDF; the rifle he was issued “was electric with the promise of Jewish power.” Turned down by Israeli army intelligence, he spent four months as a guard at a notorious Intifada prison, admitting in his memoir to physically abusing at least one detainee. Eventually, he became disillusioned, seeing the Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza to be “counterproductive, brutal and generally un-Jewish.” Resolving his identity crisis, he realized he was “irreducibly American” and moved back to the States. He started a journalism career shortly after returning at the Forward, then a Jewish weekly, where, still obsessed with anti Semitism, he sought out assignments about “skinheads, Ku Kluxers and Nation of Islam ministers.” In Prisoners he wrote, “I believed a red river of anti-Semitism ran under the surface of America and I wanted to discover its source.”

Goldberg neither apologizes for nor ducks questions about this experience in Israel. When his memoir came out, an interviewer for the New Yorker, where Goldberg was then staff writer asked:

You’ve exposed yourself here—not only your service in the Israeli Army but your intellectual and ideological development—the thinking that led you to Israel as a young man. How do you think this is going to affect you as a reporter?

To which Goldberg responded:

I don’t think truthfulness about who you are and what you’ve done and where you come from can hurt.

But he has shown himself to be a bit thin-skinned when his critics use that experience to impugn his journalistic integrity, or accuse him of an inordinate, pro Israel bias. Rather than seeing his dual citizenship and Israeli army experience as things most people might look upon somewhat skeptically in assessing journalistic credibility, Goldberg sees challenges to his patriotism motivated by bigotry. In effect, he wants it both ways, owning the experience when it burnishes his credibility as an Israel expert, but resenting it when people wonder about the primacy of his loyalties and whether this colors his journalism. And his Bloomberg bio, as well as the introductions he gets on the Sunday newsmaker shows, don't mention his dual nationality or his service in a foreign army. 

In February and march of 2009, when the pro Israel community mounted a furious campaign against the nomination of veteran diplomat Chas Freeman for the post of National Intelligence chief, Goldberg accused Freeman, who was also a member of the same “realist “school of foreign policy as Mearsheimer and Walt, of hostility to the Jewish state and a lack of analytic complexity. Observing some of the ironies of the campaign against Freeman in a Foreign Policy blog post headlined, “Have They Not a Shred of Decency” Stephen Walt noted that

A journalist (Jeffrey Goldberg) whose idea of "public service" was to enlist in the Israeli army is challenging the credentials of a man who devoted decades of his life to service in the U.S. government. Now that's chutzpah.

Boosting the venom, Goldberg followed with a string of ad hominem attacks on Walt on his Atlantic blog and began belittling Walt as “Stevie.” At one point, he smeared Walt as  “a grubby Jew baiter,” who “makes his living scapegoating Jews.” As for evidence to back up such a serious charge, Goldberg didn’t provide any, similar to his disparagement of Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism as being “filled with errors and omissions” without actually listing any.  In a Tablet magazine article that summer headlined “Mainstreaming Hate,” Goldberg said

“Walt is a throwback to the 1930s,” says Goldberg. “In the ’30s the isolationists rode the Jews as a hobby horse. They tried very hard to marginalize American citizens of the Jewish faith by questioning their loyalty. These guys don’t even understand what ancient terror they’re tapping into. What’s original, what makes this period alarming, is that The Washington Post Company would give a Jew-baiter a platform.”

Responding on his Foreign Policy blog to the ensemble of Goldberg in a post headlined Goldberg Goes Bananas---Again, Walt wrote that what really ticked Goldberg off was that:

My co-author and I (and a few others) have had the temerity to write critically about the political role of "pro- Israel" forces (both Jewish and non-Jewish) in America today. This is a topic that the goyim aren't supposed to talk about openly…When a non-Jew writes about this issue, and suggests that these groups are advocating foolish and self- defeating policies, then that person must of course be an anti-Semite. If Jews express similar doubts, they must be labeled as "self-hating" and marginalized as well.

Please. I really do understand this sort of tribalism and up to a point, I'm sympathetic to it. Given Jewish history -- and especially the dark legacy of genuine anti-Semitism -- it is unsurprising that some people are quick to assume that any gentile who criticizes the present "special relationship" must have sinister motives, even when there's no actual basis for the suspicion.  But that sensitivity doesn't make the elephant in the room disappear, and given that America's Middle East policy affects all of us, the various factors that shape that policy ought to open to fair-minded discussion devoid of name-calling and character assassination.

Walt’s goyimhass charge may not have been entirely deserved. In fact, Goldberg has gone after “his own” with the same ad hominem spite.  In 2010, as the question of dual loyalty surfaced in a very minor contretemps over the use of the term “Israel Firster” by some liberal activist bloggers, Glenn Greenwald asked Goldberg about the “standard oath” he took when he joined the IDF.  Could Goldberg confirm, Greenwald asked, that Goldberg had sworn to

pledge allegiance to the State of Israel its laws, and authorities, to accept upon myself unconditionally the authority of the Israel Defense Force, obey all the orders and instructions given by authorized commanders, devote all my energies, and even sacrifice my life for the protection of the homeland and liberty of Israel."

Goldberg responded by first saying that Greenwald’s question was a leading one and that he usually didn’t participate in “McCarthyite projects.” But he did say that at the time, he had the dim memory of having a lot of papers in front of him, in Hebrew, and feeling that as an American he shouldn’t “swear to anything like this” and so he “ducked the oath” as some Israeli soldiers do on religious grounds, and that “no one seemed to care.”

After reading Goldberg’s fumfering recollection, an Israeli army veteran wrote a scalding piece in the liberal Israeli magazine +972 in which he said that he found Goldberg’s account implausible. “Every IDF soldier is forced to sign just such an oath…You can’t be a member of the armed forces, get a weapon and military training, and not take an oath of loyalty,” this former Israeli serviceman said. Maybe Goldberg’s Hebrew wasn’t up to snuff, and he didn’t realize what he was signing, “but not signing was not an option, unless you are willing to go to military prison.” There was also the “ritual taking of the oath” at the end of basic training, “with an officer reading the oath and the soldiers, in the presence of their families, shouting back ‘I swear.’”

Is Goldberg seriously expecting us to believe he forgot this moment, one which many soldiers note as one of the most memorable of their service? How... convenient.

The point is that while Goldberg declined to serve in the military of his native country, he volunteered to serve in the army of another nation, and took its oath of allegiance. One could hardly think of anything more indicative of being an “Israel-firster” than this.

But instead of using the time to clarify his faulty memory or simply dropping the whole thing, Goldberg laid down a nasty challenge to Greenwald’s Jewishness when he revisited the issue a week later:

Self-hatred is a deeply-inexact description... In my experience, those Jews who consciously set themselves apart from the Jewish majority in the disgust they display for Israel, or for the principles of their faith, are often narcissists, and therefore seem to suffer from an excess of self-regard, rather than self-loathing.

I don't know anything about Greenwald's Jewishness. He could be a Marrano Chabadnik for all I know, though, based on the way he writes about Israel and American Jewish organizations, I often suspect that some really bad shit happened to him in Hebrew school. (I mean, worse than the usual soul-sucking anomie). But about what he writes: I do know that he evinces toward Israel a disdain that is quite breathtaking.

I thought the “loyalty” issue would be mooted when in the Washingtonian that  Goldberg had “decided to give up his Israeli citizenship,” although, somewhat oddly, this was not a direct quote from Goldberg but was the writer’s phrasing.  Goldberg said he was doing so out of liberal disappointment with the increasingly “theocratic, totalitarian” direction Israel was heading in, and not for any reasons tied to his own journalistic credibility.

In the year since that the Washingtonian published the news of Goldberg’s renunciate intention, however, there’s been no news of whether he has actually done so. Goldberg has not responded to my query about giving up his Israeli citizenship or the thinking behind it. So I don’t know whether he is still is an Israeli national or not. I do know that what he said about Israel moving in an increasingly “theocratic, totalitarian” direction is pretty harsh for such an otherwise stalwart defender of the Jewish state. It may not show a “breathtaking disdain,” but it is disdainful, and even might qualify as something that Goldberg would call anti Semitic if he himself had not said it. Maybe Goldberg and Glenn Greenwald are going to make up.

In fact, I don’t think Goldberg’s passport and IDF service constitute de facto dual loyalty, as he seems to think those raising questions about them are charging. Nor do I think they should disqualify him from the central role he’s playing the in the US-Israel discourse. But they do represent a potential conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. As such they should be acknowledged, and acknowledged quite actively, for the sake of journalistic transparency and credibility. I’d say this for all journalists in Goldberg’s position, and for the considerable number of government officials and political figures with dual Israeli-American citizenship too. If you’re involved in any capacity in the US-Israel relationship---ministering to it, lobbying for it or covering it, here or abroad, and hold two passports, Americans have a right to know. It’s too bad Goldberg resents this and that his media bosses are so indulgent of him.   

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